Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that she would be leading the national effort against childhood obesity, a decision that has been embraced by experts and groups that cite the one-third of all teens who are estimated to be overweight in the country. The national initiative, appropriately enough, is called "Let's Move."

"With nearly one in three children either overweight or obese (and therefore at higher risk for many chronic diseases), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recognized that we had to act to prevent today’s children from living sicker and dying younger than their parents’ generation," said Dwayne Proctor, Ph.D., director of RWJF’s childhood obesity team, explaining why the foundation decided to join the effort against obesity.

Another group that quickly joined the effort, led by the First Lady, was the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with a good chunk of the departments under President Obama and as much as $1 billion in federal support over the next decade.

"Anything we can do to call the public's attention to such a critical problem is a wonderful thing," said Dr. Dan Levy, a national spokesman for the AAP and a co-found of the Obesity Task Force in Maryland. "It's not just the immediate problem but the implications for the future that are so critical. We have a whole generation of kids who may not live as long as their parents."

In announcing the campaign, Michelle Obama laid out four areas that she will push for, both through public education and federal programs:

  • More nutrition information
  • An increase in physical activity
  • Easier access to foods that are healthy
  • Personal responsibility

"This isn't about inches and pounds or how our kids look," the First Lady said in a press conference introducing the new initiative. "It's about how our kids feel and how they feel about themselves."

Levy said having someone as popular and high-profile as Michelle Obama is important in the fight against childhood obesity. Still, he stressed that ultimate success of the effort rests with the overweight kids and their families who are now battling stagnant lifestyles, too much fast food, and not enough attention to what they eat.

He offered some tips for families to follow to help gain the upper hand against obesity:

  1. Eat together as a family. If you can, shop together as much as possible and invite your kids to help with the food preparation process. "Studies show that homes where families eat together, the portions tend to be smaller and there tends to be a better attitude toward food."
  2. Adopt a low glycemic diet. "Avoid anything made with white sugar, white flour and saturated fat," he said. He said if everyone adopted only that rule for all meals, it would mean drastically healthier diets.
  3. Get more exercise and more sleep. That would also help most kids in the classroom, and should be something that all schools preach, Levy said. "One of the big things that frustrates me is that educators need to grasp the notion that the very things they care about the most—better test scores and a low absentee rate—are all directly related to the health of the student."
  4. Become more media savvy. Saturday morning television messaging, for example, isn't filled with enough healthy eating choices, Levy said. But if parents and kids realize that not all media messages are sound and healthy, that would be extremely helpful.
  5. The battle is won in small steps that add up over time. "Look, the major reason why so many diets don't work is that people don't persist with them," Levy said. "If families and kids take accountability for eating the right things and getting exercise and avoiding a lot of the treats and sedentary activities, then things tend to go well. But it's hard to sustain that."

Working to help make the effort a success is the RWJF, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the California Endowment, Nemours, Kaiser Permanente and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, all brought together in a foundation called the Partnership for a Healthier America. The foundation will work to accelerate the First Lady's goals whenever possible, said Proctor.

Levy said the goal of reducing childhood obesity in the country is huge, but with Obama, the foundation and so many partners, he is hopeful. "I think it's wonderful that someone as visible as the First Lady has embraced this issue," Levy said. "That's a fabulous thing ... and I think it can be very, very useful."

March 1, 2010